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Weekly Mulch: Why building a bike-safe city is key to a clean energy future

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Congress couldn’t get it together to vote even on the smallest of possible energy bills -- the renewable energy standard -- before the October recess. That doesn’t change the reality that our energy dependent society needs to find alternatives quickly. Changing up our approach to transportation, one of the biggest sources of energy consumption, is a good place to start.

If more Americans used bicycles as a primary mode of transportation, the country would be closer to getting its energy use under control. So how can we make biking safer, easier, more mainstream? Infrastructure, safety, and education are key. It also helps to replicate model behaviors.

“Last spring, public officials from Madison, Wisconsin, returned home from a tour of the Netherlands, and within three weeks were implementing what they learned there about promoting bicycling on the streets of their own city,” reports Jay Walljasper for Yes! Magazine.

Cities like Portland, Madison, and San Francisco are trying to make cycling a way of life. But for the best answers, American leaders must look abroad, to cities like Copenhagen in Denmark, Utrecht and The Hague in the Netherlands, and Malmo in Sweden.

Safe riding

Improving safety is the first order of business to encouraging cycling, and that means investing in infrastructure specifically for bike use. As Change.org’s Jess Leber writes, “Every time there is a senseless death, there are going to be a group of residents who decide biking is too risky for their tastes.”

Many regular bikers admit that it’s frightening to ride down a street with a gigantic, roaring beast of car quickly approaching. “When I lived in New York City, I myself was too frightened to use my bike in many parts of the city,” Leber admits.

What kind of infrastructure do we need? Designated bike lanes indicate what sort of space bikes need on the road. But bike lanes should also be physically separated from cars. In Copenhagen, for instance, “the busy roadways are lined with cycle tracks (elevated bike paths painted bright blue for distinction),” writes Campus Progress’ Jessica Newman.

In the Hague, bike paths are separate from cars and trucks, Some streets are designated as “bike boulevards,” where bikes take precedence over cars, reports Walljasper in Yes! Magazine.

Ease of use

But safe infrastructure is a waste of money if no one uses it. While cities are out building better bike lanes, they should consider adding other features that will make it as convenient to bike as it is to drive or walk. In Malmo, bike riders stopped at red lights can grab onto railings to keep their balance -- ”a surprisingly popular feature,” reports Grist’s Sarah Goodyear.

Another Dutch project is to improve the process of parking. “Access to safe, convenient bike storage has a big impact on whether people bike,” as Walljasper reports in Yes! Magazine.

“The car is parked right out in front of the house on the street, while the bike is stuffed away out back in a shed or has to be carried up and down the stairs in their buildings. So people choose the car because it is easier,” one Dutch policy officer told Walljasper.

More mainstream

In both Utrecht and Copenhagen, one strategy for integrating cycling into its citizens’ behavior is to teach the young. In Copenhagen, “Instead of driver’s education classes, children attend biker’s ed in the third and ninths grades, where they learn traffic laws, proper bike etiquette and general agility,” according to Campus Progress’ Newman.

Going back to Yes!, in Utrecht, cycling is also built into the curriculum:

A municipal program sends special teachers into schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete with roads, sidewalks, and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars). At age 11, most kids in town are tested on their cycling skills on a course through the city, winning a certificate of accomplishment that ends up framed on many bedroom walls.

“To make safer roads, we focus on the children,” [city planner Ronald] Tamse explained. “It not only helps them bike and walk more safely, but it helps them to become safer drivers who will look out for pedestrians and bicyclists in the future.”

Envisioning the future

What does a city with these sorts of programs in place look like? In Copenhagen, you see “streets crowded with bikes, with riders ranging from wealthy, middle-aged businessmen to mothers in tow of three or more kids to poor college students,” Newman reports. Thirty-three percent of Copenhagen’s citizens commute by bike; in Portland, by contrast, it’s just 5.81%.

Yes! Magazine points to another way to understand the difference between biking in an American city, unfriendly to bikers, and in a European city that embraces them. In Riding Bikes with the Dutch, Michal W. Bauch compares transportation culture in Los Angeles and Amsterdam:

Increasing reliance on cycling is not impossible. The tools are already there. American cities just need to use them, and quickly.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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